The Dust Bowl and Human Agency

The foggy, rainy, cold, water-logged conditions here in the Midwest bring to mind other summers where the normal growing season hasn’t gone as planned.  Summer should be hot, with average rainfall, so that farmers can once again bring forth a startlingly great harvest from the American land.

Yet history furnishes instances when nature has refused to cooperate, as in the summer without a summer (1816), when a volcanic eruption half a world away filled the atmosphere with so much ash that the sun’s rays couldn’t warm the Earth and crops throughout the United States, northern Europe, and Russia froze.

Other than that, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s furnishes most dramatic instance of agricultural disaster with its attendant suffering.  Readers of The Grapes of Wrath may recall its harrowing beginning, as Steinbeck describes the drought and terrifying and relentless dust storms that drove masses of subsistence farmers in Oklahoma from their land.

That human action caused this “natural” catastrophe is perhaps less known.  The editors of History.com make the case that reckless settlement on the naturally arid prairies of the Lower Plains states created the conditions for the disaster that followed.

In the decades following the Civil War, millions of settlers moved to what would then have been “virgin land” in the region where Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico adjoin.  Many were inexperienced farmers, responding to the lure of free acreage offered under the 1862 Homestead Act.  This federal policy encouraged rapid settlement in the West by allowing any American with a family to acquire up to 160 acres from the Land Office for a small fee.  Even though the West’s tough dry prairies were much less promising than those in the Mississippi River valley, where the soils were highly fertile and received much more rainfall, settlers snapped up the barren acres, impelled by the superstition that “rain follows the plow.”  According to this “now-discredited theory of climatology,” only human cultivation was wanting to turn desert land into “a garden” and increase its rainfall and humidity.

The First World War caused grain shortages, increasing incentives for American farmers to grow more wheat.  Homesteaders zealously tore up millions of square miles of the deep rooted prairie, grasslands that had kept the dry soils of the region in place.  After the end of World War One, grain prices slumped dramatically as peacetime production of wheat resumed around the globe.  Paradoxically, even as wheat prices plummeted, American farmers produced record wheat crops in 1928 and 1931.  By then, the US economy was in the grip of the Great Depression and much of the wheat crop went unsold.  Such were the conditions when a terrible drought came, forcing countless Americans to abandon their homes.

It was the most consequential weather disaster in American history.  For several years, winds swept the dry plains, picking up millions of tons of soil and balling them into fearsome looking “black blizzards,” dark billowing clouds that traveled as far east as the Atlantic Coast.  At the epicenter of the Dust Bowl region, fine particles of brown dust drifted from the sky, settling in heaping dunes, asphyxiating cattle, clogging human lungs, coating leaves.  Only belatedly did the government begin to encourage farmers to plant windbreaks and take other measures to mitigate erosion.  Devastation on such a scale was only partly “natural”; human folly contributed to human suffering in the Dust Bowl era.

 

Images: from this source, and this.

Bike messengers by Lewis Hine

Percy Neville in the heart of the Red Light district. Just come out of one of the houses with message (which see in his hand). He said gleefully "She gimme a quarter tip." . . . Location: Shreveport, Louisiana.

Percy Neville in the heart of the Red Light district. Just come out of one of the houses with message . . . . He said gleefully “She gimme a quarter tip.” . . . Location: Shreveport, Louisiana.  1913.

Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M. Been with W[estern] U[nion] for six months, one month delivering for a drug store. "I learned a lot about the 'Reservation' while I was at the drug store and I go there some times now." Location: Houston, Texas.

Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M.  Been with W[estern] U[nion] for six months, one month delivering for a drug store. “I learned a lot about the ‘Reservation’ [red-light district] while I was at the drug store and I go there some times now.”  Location: Houston, Texas.  1913.

Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers. Location: Waco, Texas.

Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company.  Said fifteen years old.  Exposed to Red Light dangers.  Location: Waco, Texas.  1913.

Earle Griffith and Eddie Tahoory, working for the Dime Messenger Service. They said they never knew when they were going to get home at night. Usually work one or more nights a week, and have worked until after midnight. They said last Christmas their office had a 9 yr. old boy running errands for them, and that he made a great deal of money from tips. They make about $7 a week and more, sometimes. Said "The office is not allowed to send us into the red light district but we go when a call sends us. Not very often." Location: Washington DC.

Earle Griffith and Eddie Tahoory, working for the Dime Messenger Service.  They said they never knew when they were going to get home at night.  Usually work one or more nights a week, and have worked until after midnight.  They said last Christmas their office had a 9 yr. old boy running errands for them, and that he made a great deal of money from tips.  They make about $7 a week and more, sometimes.  Said “The office is not allowed to send us into the red light district but we go when a call sends us.  Not very often.”  Location: Washington DC.  1912.

Selling during school hours, 10:30 A.M. Location: Syracuse, New York.

Selling during school hours, 10:30 A.M.  Location: Syracuse, New York.  1910.

Wilbur H. Woodward, 428 Third St., NW, Washington, DC, Western Union messenger 236, one of the youngsters on the border-line, (15 yrs. old) works until 8 P.M. only. Location: Washington DC.

Wilbur H. Woodward, 428 Third St., NW, Washington, DC, Western Union messenger 236, one of the youngsters on the border-line, (15 yrs. old) works until 8 P.M. only.  Location: Washington DC.  1912.

Eleven-year-old Western Union messenger #51. J.T. Marshall. Been day boy here for five months. Goes to Red Light district some and knows some of the girls. Location: Houston, Texas.

Eleven-year-old Western Union messenger #51. J.T. Marshall. Been day boy here for five months. Goes to Red Light district some and knows some of the girls. Location: Houston, Texas.  1913.

Danville Messengers. The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5, is only ten years old, and is working as extra boy. He said he was going to be laid off as the manager told him he was too young, but an older messenger told me the reason was that the other messengers were having him put off because he cuts into their earnings. Location: Danville, Virginia.

Danville Messengers. The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5, is only ten years old, and is working as extra boy. He said he was going to be laid off as the manager told him he was too young, but an older messenger told me the reason was that the other messengers were having him put off because he cuts into their earnings. Location: Danville, Virginia.  1911.

Manley Creasson, 914 W. 6 St. Messenger #6, Mackay Telegraph Co. Says he is 14; school records say 13. Says he has steady job-- "Been a messenger for years. Get $15 for 2 weeks' pay." Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Manley Creasson, 914 W. 6 St. Messenger #6, Mackay Telegraph Co. Says he is 14; school records say 13. Says he has steady job– “Been a messenger for years. Get $15 for 2 weeks’ pay.” Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  1917.

Since these boys stared into Lewis Hine’s camera a century ago, the status of American children has improved in some ways but not others.  Back then, children were prone to become whatever the economic situations of their families required.  The children of farmers were often pressed into lives of drudgery, while others followed the trend of modernization, working in the street trades if they were city dwellers, or in mills, mines, and factories, all to stave off the want of individual and family poverty. Continue reading

Small Red House

Small red house, © 2014 Susan BarsyThe South Shore Line, an electric train that runs from South Bend Indiana into Chicago, runs through some of the most beautiful places along Lake Michigan as well as some of the poorest and dirtiest.  The simple beauty of the dunes, marshes, and woodlands that line the Lake alternates with a landscape that industry and humble labor of many sorts have shaped.

The train runs along the beautiful old Calumet Trail, a prairie path that has existed since Indian times, following the curve of the Lake across boundaries separating town from country, blurring the distinctions of ownership and governing.  All of northern Indiana and Chicago’s southern hinterland are seamlessly joined.  On both sides of the train flow thousands of properties—neat and messy, beautiful and ugly, thriving and moldering—suggesting every condition of American society.

It’s a hard train ride because so many neighborhoods are decrepit and decaying.  So many places—and people—are just scraping by.  Our America is not a spotless picture-perfect place.  Off the political grid are thousands of people subsisting in garbage-strewn trailer parks, or living in ramshackle housing with windows missing.  They are exiles from the land of opportunity.  Embarrassing aberrations with no place in the progressive narrative of the world’s greatest nation, they are geniuses of survival, disciples of the art of making something out of nothing.  With luck, every day is the same, where social isolation limns the horizon.

Is this the nation our forebears intended us to become?

Society

A street in Ireland, 1907 (Courtesy National Library of Ireland via the Commons on Flickr)

Among the hundreds of historical photographs I’ve looked at this week, this one stands out, jarring my sensibilities, its everydayness so strikingly at odds with ours.  Whereas many historical photographs appeal because of their near-resemblance to the life we know, others are fascinating in their strangeness, in their capacity to demand independent consideration.

So it is with this photograph from the National Library of Ireland.  It shows a muddy street in the port city of Waterford, where teamsters are conveying several carts of live turkeys up from the wharves.  Their destination may be a local poultry store, where the turkeys were likely to be sold to customers live, then kept at home and butchered by those in the kitchen for the holiday meal.  The date is December 16, 1907.  To have a rich turkey feast was then, as in Dickens’ time sixty years earlier, a singular joy and a sure token of prosperity.

There was a different appearance to a street.  The bricks of the gutter are evident, but the rest of the paving is scarcely visible beneath a thick layer of mud and animal waste, which night crews may have periodically combed smooth.  The only conveyances in sight are carts and wagons, though elsewhere, we know, automobiles were beginning to appear.  Besides teamsters hauling goods away from the harbor, the only other traffic is a pair of ladies in decent hats, driving themselves on their calls and errands.

The real point of interest, though, is along the curb, where we see a barefoot boy standing in the road.  He and his friend may be hoping to earn a few coins by helping the teamsters unload the turkeys.  Just a few feet away are a well-dressed lady and gentleman, and behind them are a trio of poorer, working-class women known as ‘shawlies.’  Whereas the lady has a proper overcoat or wrapper and a fur hat, the other women go about with their heads and bodies unceremoniously wrapped in shawls for warmth.  They carry baskets.

Class was different then, as clothing and shoes and manners marked out very visibly just how different one type of person was from the other.  Though the classes rubbed elbows much more intimately than they do today, the gulf between rich and poor was more evident and less was done to ameliorate it, to ease the suffering of the barefoot and hungry.

Image from this source.
Click on the image to enlarge it.